Turning back blight

Improvement: Patterson Park is drawing the attention of young couples, families and developers.

November 12, 2001|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

On the first block of North Luzerne Avenue, just north of Patterson Park, each of the tidy brick and Formstone rowhomes is adorned with a coach light. Wrought-iron railings contrast with traditional white marble steps. Large wooden planters filled with flowers dot each side of the spacious street, throwing off splashes of color in the autumn sun.

Prices of these homes, several of which were once vacant eyesores that have been renovated inside as well as out, have jumped from $75,000 two years ago to $125,000 today.

"This is our showcase block," says Ed Rutkowski, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Patterson Park Community Development Corp., which for the past five years has been buying and rehabilitating houses in the neighborhoods around the park.

Other blocks show signs of undergoing a similar transformation, creating the beginnings of what some see as a "second renaissance" for an area that symbolized the decline of many city neighborhoods. The Patterson Park area rebounded from flight brought on by the 1968 riots to become a stable neighborhood two decades later. By the mid-1990s, however, it was besieged by a panoply of urban problems, from drugs to property flipping to an excess of low-income renters.

Now, with publicly funded improvements to the park and a spillover of homebuyers priced out of nearby Canton helping to create a more vibrant market, private developers have jumped in. They've begun purchasing properties and undertaking more than cosmetic makeovers, an activity that until recently was largely the work of the Patterson Park CDC.

Mayor Martin O'Malley has held up the Patterson Park area as an example of how blight could be stemmed and a neighborhood turned around.

And Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, a key financial supporter of Rutkowski's group, said the upturn may bode well for neighborhoods such as Belair-Edison, Forest Park and Waverly, where problems with abandonment and disinvestment have yet to reach the point of no return.

With strong leadership of the CDC and a market to build on, "I think it says you can prevent a neighborhood's deterioration," said Embry, a former Baltimore housing commissioner.

New homeowners are being drawn in by the neighborhood's affordability - and its diversity.

"You can find someone who looks like you real fast," says Rhonda Rone, an African-American who moved with her husband and two children onto the first block of North Luzerne Avenue in July and notes that her neighbors include Asians and Latinos as well as whites and blacks.

Those most deeply involved in the area's redevelopment acknowledge that progress is still fragile and limited in scope; last month, a house two blocks north of the park was auctioned off for the rock-bottom price of $5,000.

The vacancy rate in the area north and east of the park soared in the past decade, from 7.8 percent in 1990 to 19.3 percent in 2000, according to census comparisons. At the same time, the rate of homeownership declined from 69 percent to 49 percent.

Rutkowski, 54, has lived through many of the changes, good and bad. A former computer programmer and analyst, he has been trying to make Patterson Park work since he moved there in 1986.

By the mid-1990s, he saw a community in "serious trouble." Drug-dealing and violent and property crimes were on the rise, and the values of many houses were stagnating or declining. As homeowners left the area, foreclosures and vacancies increased.

Speculators swooped in to buy up some of the properties, renting many to low-income tenants with certificates from the city's subsidized Section 8 program, which was sharply criticized by federal auditors this year for past mismanagement.

Patterson Park's position as a declining neighborhood but one that had not yet hit bottom made it fertile ground in the mid-1990s for flipping, a fraudulent scheme in which a property is bought and quickly resold at a highly inflated rate. Estimates are that at least 300 properties were flipped in the area around the park, leading to more foreclosures and vacancies.

It was against this backdrop that Rutkowski in 1996 founded the community development corporation to supplement the work of longstanding neighborhood groups to encourage homebuying, make landscaping improvements and organize residents.

"I came to the conclusion that the only way to save the neighborhood was to control the real estate," Rutkowski says.

The community development corporation began slowly, buying a handful of houses in the first year, but has since moved quickly.

As of the end of September, it had bought 270 rowhouses, all but a couple of which were vacant, and had contracts on 15 others, using $13 million in private loans and another $7 million in state, federal and city money to pay for the purchase and extensive rehabs.

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